The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the most significant teaching documents in the Reformed Faith. This year marks the 450th anniversary of its publication. (For some background and the entire document, check this out.) It’s divided into questions and answers for each week (Lord’s Day), and throughout this year I’ll try to offer some brief reflections. Here it is for this past Sunday:
LORD’S DAY 4
Q. 9. Is not God unjust in requiring of man in his Law what he cannot do?
A. No, for God so created man that he could do it. But man, upon the instigation of the devil, by deliberate disobedience, has cheated himself and all his descendants out of these gifts.
Q. 10. Will God let man get by with such disobedience and defection?
A. Certainly not, for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, both against out inborn sinfulness and our actual sins, and he will punish them according to his righteous judgment in time and in eternity, as he has declared: “Cursed by everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, and do them.”
Q. 11. But is not God also merciful?
A. God is indeed merciful and gracious but he is also righteous. It is his righteousness which requires that sin committed against the supreme majesty of God be punished with extreme, that is, with eternal punishment of body and soul.
This set of questions and answers, difficult though they may be, should prevent anyone from making the false claim that catechisms are dry and irrelevant. These are heartfelt questions that weigh heavily upon consciences and are often used as objections against Christianity.
Why would God give us rules that he knows we cannot keep?
How could a loving God sentence anyone to hell?
These are deep questions with which people have wrestled throughout the ages, and it would be foolish to think I can appropriately address them all in this short post, but the catechism does provide us with the necessary biblical framework in which we must think.
God’s law is impossible for us to keep because of our sin, but that does not make God unjust or unfair in demanding that we keep it. Adam’s fall plunged the whole of his posterity into sin, enslaved us to sin, and prevents us from fulfilling God’s law.
This isn’t to say that we are forced to sin against our will, however. In fact, the fallen nature of the faculty of our will means that we sin willingly and deliberately. Later Reformed Scholasticism would distinguish between a freedom of necessity and a freedom of coercion. (I’ll post more on this some other time–it’s a deep and nuanced topic.) The simple point is this: though we are not forced to sin, we cannot help but to sin. God, therefore, is not unjust or unfair in punishing that sin.
To go even further: God would actually be unjust and unfair if he did not punish our sin, because it would be an affront to his righteousness and justice. If God did not deal with sin in the way that only an infinitely holy Judge could, then his glory would be less than it is. God’s judgment against sin does not mitigate against or invalidate his mercy. The beauty and wonder of his free mercy can only be clearly seen in light of his righteous justice.
The final question brings up another difficult issue. Is God perhaps “overreacting” by issuing out eternal punishment for short-lived and trivial sins?
It’s common to hear people ridicule this idea that ‘little’ and ‘temporary’ sins are somehow deserving of eternal judgment. How should we respond?
First, we must understand that it is not just the ‘little’ action, but the disposition of the heart from which that action was generated. So it’s not just that one sinful action that leads to judgment, but the totally warped and corrupted heart that produced that action which God judges.
Second, it is not the degree, intensity, or frequency of the sin that matters so much as the holiness, perfection, and glory of the One against whom we sin. If you threaten your neighbor, you may be charged with some various offenses by the local police. If you threaten the President, you’re in a whole other mess with much more serious consequences. Sin is so vile and deserves such severe judgment not only because of what it is but also because of whom it is against.
Is God unjust? No. He is infinitely just, but also infinitely merciful. These two attributes only come into sharp focus when we see one through the other.